SAYING GOODBYE TO LEIA
The Last Jedi comes out in theaters this week. As a life-long Star Wars fan, I should be excited. I mean, I am excited. But there’s a dark cloud hanging over that excitement. A lurking sadness. Because I know that seeing The Last Jedi will mean saying goodbye to one of the great loves of my life – Princess Leia Organa.
I was introduced to Star Wars by my older cousins. Born in the winter of 1976, the seventh of nine grandchildren (five girls and four boys) I was in the younger half of the generation and the only girl among us. I idolized my cousins Jason and Curt and if I wanted to play with them that meant playing what they were interested in. In the late 70s and early 80s in America that meant Star Wars.
Star Wars became more than a movie, more than a game. It was our religion. Action figures, playsets, comic books, stickers, trading cards – we pored over them like holy relics. Before the advent of the VCR, we had to reinforce the plot and the characters over and over again in our minds, in our back yards, in various wood-paneled basement rec rooms. We invented new adventures and scenarios to fill the gaps between the movies.
Being the only girl in the game naturally meant that I was regularly assigned the part of the only girl in the galaxy. I didn’t mind, though. Princess Leia was tough. She was fierce. Sure, she had to get rescued to tip off the action in A New Hope, but after that, she mixed it up side by side with the men who had gone charging into the heart of enemy territory without a plan. She cleaned up messes. She made some of her own. She was tough and focused and sassy and brave in the face of horrific loss. The movies gloss over this, but think about it: she was forced to watch her entire planet being destroyed in an instant but still had the presence of mind to continue the fight. To comfort Luke Skywalker while he was being a whiny baby about Ben Kenobi dying.
At school, my best friend Erika also loved Star Wars with a passion that matched mine. She wanted to be the first female Jedi and would graciously let me be Leia when we played Star Wars on the playground, the bleak Northern Michigan winter landscape a perfect parallel to the ice planet of Hoth. For Halloween in 1983 my mother sewed me a Princess Leia costume and I was beside myself with joy at getting to inhabit my hero on the outside as well as the inside because I went entire weeks in my mind pretending to be Leia. Even during math lessons and dance class, there was a secret part of me that was off in a galaxy far, far away trying to liberate her people from evil.
When I grew up, I went into politics and even then, I carried Leia with me. Because before she was the leader of the rebellion, Princess Leia Organa of Alderaan was a politician. A senator, like the ones I worked for on Capitol Hill. So many times working as a Democrat throughout the horrors of the George W. Bush administration I would find myself quite literally asking myself what would Leia do? Seriously, what would she do right now? Speak out? Organize a coup? Retreat to fight another day? Or pull out a blaster and start shooting? And OK, I never did do that last part, but I gathered strength from the image of a young woman who has lost everything, nearly every person and place she holds dear, but keeps fighting with determination and dedication to what’s right.
We also need to talk about Han Solo. With apologies to my husband, there will never be any man as attractive and appealing to me as Han Solo. In hindsight, dishing out sarcastic barbs and pretending that you hate the person you really love probably wasn’t the most healthy relationship model for me to have as a child, but I imprinted on it like a duckling. I spent way too many of my dating years chasing a version of the sketchy space pirate that wasn’t entirely reliable but had his moments. Even though I’ve grown out of that (mostly) Han and Leia’s bickering chemistry still gives me the tingles.
Two years ago, Star Wars – my Star Wars – roared back into the current cultural scene. The Force Awakens would be the first new movie in years and the first one to bring back the old characters, including Princess Leia and Han Solo. The trailer was spectacular and goosebump-inducing. I made plans to travel to Michigan to see the movie with my cousins, the boys (now men) who had pulled me into this universe so long ago.
But in the weeks before the premiere it became clear to me that Han Solo was going to die. There’s no WAY the notoriously grumpy Harrison Ford would be doing all of that press if he had to be in two more Star Wars movies. And this was going to be especially rough for me because I had lost my own father five years before The Force Awakens and losing Han would mean reliving a little bit of that horrible loss.
But the real surprise of the movie for me was Leia. Princess Leia of the original trilogy was someone that I could emulate in my 20s and 30s. Now, as I was approaching 40, General Leia came to show me how to be that same rebellious spirit only older, wiser.
When Han and Leia are reunited in that movie, the dialogue exchanged is perfection. “You changed your hair,” Han says. Leia looks him over and responds “Same jacket.” It burst my heart into seventy million pieces.
But if losing Han was inevitable, losing Leia feels absolutely wrong. Her exit from the story is not something carefully considered and sensibly scripted, it’s a necessity brought by the sudden death of Carrie Fisher last winter.
I am a huge fan of Carrie Fisher. But she and Princess Leia have always been separate entities to me. I loved Fisher’s humor in embracing the fact that she was the vessel for this mythological character and all that she symbolized to so many of us lost children of Generation X. She would gamely make appearances at Star Wars conventions, calling her signings and photo shoots “lap dancing,” but without bitterness. She grew into a fierce, funny and flawed legend in her own right. She had so much more to do.
I heard about Carrie Fisher’s heart attack last Christmastime in downtown Chicago. I was doing some shopping alone and planning to meet my husband and in-laws for Christkindlmarket in Daley Plaza in an hour or so. It was dark and freezing rain was coming down so I stopped at a McDonalds to get a coke and rest for a minute. Checking Twitter, I started to see the reports, the hashtags. My heart sank. No. Not Carrie. 2016 was such an outrageous year for celebrity loss, I had actually made a personal list in my mind of deaths I would not be able to bear. Carrie Fisher was one of them.
But of course, I had to bear it. Just like I had to bear the loss of my dad and the loss of the chance to have our first woman president and so many other smaller losses that harden us as we grow older.
On Twitter, many fans of Carrie Fisher/Leia refer to her as “Space Mommy,” a slightly creepy but also endearing expression of love and gratitude for what has been an icon for so many of us. Although I love my own mother and stepmom, we occupy very different worlds. Leia has been guiding me through my own secret internal world for four decades. I was counting on her to show me the way as she had so often in the past.
As of this writing, I don’t know how they are going to handle the Leia issue in The Last Jedi. I don’t know if they will kill her off or shoot her into some mysterious dimension or kick the question to the next and last installment of the planned trilogy. But however they do it, I won’t be the same. With both Han and Leia’s story ending, it’s like being orphaned. And I’m not ready. But like in real life, I know it’s going to happen whether I’m ready or not.
In some way, I know she will live on as a saint of sorts. As a symbol of the #Resistance. An icon. Maybe as my own personal Force ghost if I’m lucky. I will always be grateful to her. But God, will I miss her.
May the Force be with you, Leia. Always.